I was only a few minutes into Dead Cells’ new The Bad Seed expansion before I knew I was hooked all over again.
The expansion, the first paid update for the indie roguelike at $4.99, adds a few new areas that fork off the main path of the game’s linear series of procedurally generated levels. It’s the second-ever add on, but it’s the first by new studio Evil Empire, a spinoff from the game’s original creator Motion Twin formed last year that now has free reign to steer the game in whatever direction it pleases. I wanted to see the results of that choice, and whether Evil Empire could capture the magic (and the misery) of throwing yourself into the interactive meat grinder that is Dead Cells.
The good news is that the game’s spirit is indeed intact, although surprisingly with a little more magic than misery. The Bad Seed’s theme is plant and insect-based horrors, and the new Dilapidated Arboretum and Swamp biomes deliver in full with all manner of repulsive, mushroom and tick creatures to best with an array of new weapons.
That includes the first-ever two-handed Dead Cells weapon, a giant organic scythe obtained by besting a powerful new foe. The new biomes also happen to be the most intricately designed of the game’s various levels. There’s new, atmospheric background tunes and more complex level design that makes exploring both areas a fun puzzle to solve, when you’re not avoiding little murderous mushroom men and blow gun-wielding minions.
As an expansion to one of arguably the hardest games of the last few years, the Bad Seed is also surprisingly accessible. The new biomes are easily reached through the introduction area, and their difficulty falls neatly into the early first third of the game instead of the latter half, where it’s expected you’ll be more powered up and versatile. That is likely due to it being a paid expansion. Dead Cells’ first DLC, Rise of the Giant, was free, but it was designed for the hardcore crowd only. It introduced two new bosses, but it also added secret endings to the game only achievable by playing it on its highest, most inaccessible difficulty level.
That may be why I was sucked in so hard by The Bad Seed. After clearing the Rise of the Giant late last year in what can only be described as an act of self-flagellation, I wanted to give up on Dead Cells for good. I even archived the game on my Nintendo Switch, convinced I would never touch it again. That was how severely addicted I was to the game’s brutal loop of try, die, and try again: I had to take extreme precautions to force myself to stop.
Dead Cells is one of those games that, when it runs up against the right combination of stubbornness, self-delusion, and neurotic obsessiveness, will ruin your life. I don’t mean it will actually destroy you, in that it won’t send you into an inescapable downward spiral that causes your sanity to slip away. But it comes close.
You’ll find your free time consumed by practicing biomes and reading everything you can about optimal builds and strategies. Sometimes, after a poor move or just some plain bad luck, you’ll find yourself staring blankly for some time, wondering why you’re playing this game and what arcane, dark spell has been cast over you. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve simply googled “Dead Cells too hard reddit,” to read threads of comments by other human beings who might be sympathizing with my pain. Perhaps there is a Dead Cells support group out there. Maybe I should start one.
The fact is that Dead Cells is both a fantastically designed video game and also a punishingly difficult one. It’s not hard in just the Dark Souls kind of way, or in the old-school arcade game fashion. It’s that the game invites you to play it under increasingly masochistic to eventually downright deranged limitations that only the most dedicated of players ever attempt.
For example, you can play the game for literal hours at a time, only to lose all of that progress in a matter of a second or two, with one false move. Or you could play flawlessly straight through to the end, only to perform marginally better (and yet perish anyway) against a boss you’ve died fighting against countless times.
That is, of course, the entire point of this unique roguelike. There is no leveling up in Dead Cells. You just play until you’re good enough to beat the entire game in what is effectively one sitting. The only variables that change are the drop rate of more powerful weapons and items. To increase the chances of getting better gear, though, you have to keep beating the game (or significant chunks of it) and saving up the “cells” that drop from dead enemies.
It’s a cycle that you must master if you’re to attempt the later “boss cell” versions of the game, where the increasingly punishing constraints slip into complete absurdity like zero health recharges and near one-shot blows from enemies.
It doesn’t have to be played that way, at all. Dead Cells is a perfectly good, well designed game that you could spend 20 to 30 hours on and then put down. But those who sink deep into Dead Cells, like yours truly, can’t help but throw themselves at the game’s various challenges, even when they begin seeming unfair.
That’s what made Rise of the Giant such an addicting yet painful experience. It invited you to be the absolute best, and it even dangled rare, immensely important story threads behind that secret final level, a feat that demanded I spent dozens of hours struggling just to get there. It would take me many hours more to actually complete it.
That brings us back to the Bad Seed. When I fired it up this past Friday on my Nintendo Switch, I was prepared to die. Many times. And yet I didn’t. I breezed through it on standard difficulty, thanks largely to how much I’ve upgraded the drop rate of good items.
Then I bested it again on boss cell level three, collected more cells, and bought some of the interesting new items available. It felt like this is how the game was meant to be enjoyed, and I’m happy so many Dead Cells players who haven’t yet ventured into boss cell territory (and never will) will get to enjoy it and for such a low price.
But there is a nagging part of me that wants to go deeper, again, even though I know I’ll have to suffer for it. On Saturday morning, I found myself firing up a brand new run, this time in custom mode so I could use only the scythe and some complimentary traps. But I put it on boss cell five. I’m convinced there might be a secret hidden at the highest difficulty level, perhaps just a rare item blueprint or new outfit to unlock.
But all the same, I want to know that I can get through The Bad Seed biomes at their most oppressive and go on to finish the playthrough, even if I have to throw myself against the wall trying. And already, I have died numerous times. I haven’t even made it past the new boss. I’m back on the grind, and Dead Cells has sunk its teeth into once more and won’t let go.